Cartographic Symbolization: Symbol Basics and Geographic Phenomena. (Especially for GATE-Geospatial 2022)

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Symbol Basics

In general, data depicted on maps, in fact maps themselves, are symbolic representations of geographic phenomena and the Earthีšs surface on a sheet of paper, or on a computer monitor. In effect, maps are complex tools for visualizing and communicating scaled-down geospatial data, and graphic symbology is their language of communication.

Geographic Phenomena

Cartographers and geographers use symbols on maps to represent various geographic phenomena involving location, distance, volume, movement, function, process, correlation, etc.

Map symbolization is the characters, letters, or similar graphic representations used on a map to indicate an object or characteristic in the real world.

These phenomena can be classified into four basic categories:

This Diagram Shows Four Basic Categories of Symbology

The challenge in cartographic symbol design is that four categories of data must be represented on maps by only three basic symbol types: point, line, and area.


Symbolization is the process of choosing how to represent the features on a map. The symbols we choose should help describe additional information about the features on the map. Poor symbolization leads to inaccurate, misunderstood, or even deceptive information, while effective symbolization helps to communicate information quickly and clearly.

When we move to cartographic abstractions, we need to represent these entire objects.

This Figure Shows Scale Change and Feature Elimination

Figure represents scale change and feature elimination

Comparison points, lines, areas, and surfaces as these features are detailed in large-scale and eliminated for small-scale documents.

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